Stairmaster Vs Treadmill: Which Gives The Better Workout?

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When you’re at the gym eyeing the various cardio equipment, it can be difficult to choose which machine you should go with. 

There are usually at least stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, StairMasters, and good old treadmills to choose from. Depending on your workout goals and fitness status, one machine might be better for you than another.

When it comes to the StairMaster vs treadmill, which gives the better workout? In a head-to-head matchup between the treadmill vs StairMaster, which burns more calories?

In this article, we will compare the StairMaster vs treadmill and discuss the pros and cons of each workout.

We will cover: 

  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill Workout Difficulty
  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill for Cardio
  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill for Strength and Building Muscle 
  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill Calories Burned
  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill for Weight Loss
  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill Injury Risk
  • Stairmaster vs Treadmill: Which Gives the Better Workout?

Let’s get started!


Stairmaster vs Treadmill Workout Difficulty

The StairMaster and treadmill are both pieces of cardio equipment that can offer a great aerobic workout.

A StairMaster is a type of stationary stair climber or stair stepper exercise machine that involves rotating stairs that you ascend. Other stair stepper machines involve just stepping on alternating pedals that mimic the resistance and incline of climbing stairs.

Most people are familiar with a treadmill, but what makes it difficult to really compare a stair climber vs treadmill workout is the fact that treadmills can be used for walking or running and may or may not be used at an incline.

Walking on a treadmill is a much lower intensity and lower-impact workout than running on a treadmill. 

Additionally, whether you’re walking or running if you’re using the treadmill on an incline, you’re significantly increasing the intensity of the exercise, burning more calories, and using more muscles.

Indeed, one of the main differences between treadmill vs StairMaster workouts when a treadmill is used without incline is that treadmills are pretty much just giving a cardio workout, whereas a StairMaster provides a cardio and resistance workout all in one. 

A person on a treadmill.

However, when you walk or run up the incline on a treadmill, you’ll actually be getting a similar type of workout as you would on a stair stepper machine or StairMaster.

Moreover, the other factor to consider with stair stepper vs treadmill workouts is the type of workout you’re doing and your familiarity with the machine.

You can walk or jog slowly on a treadmill for a relatively low-intensity workout, or you can run hard or do HIIT with speed intervals, which can be an extremely high-intensity workout.

Similarly, on the StairMaster or other stair climber exercise machine, you can climb at an easy or brisk pace, or you can add hard intervals at a hard running effort. 

The higher the intensity, the more difficult the workout.

The StairMaster and other stair stepper machines have a bit of a learning curve, and they take more coordination to use.

For this reason, beginners might be able to get a better workout on the treadmill until their stair climbing technique has improved.

People running on treadmills.

StairMaster vs Treadmill for Cardio

If you’re looking for the best cardio workout between StairMaster vs treadmill workouts, you’ll have to consider how you plan to use the treadmill.

If you’re going to walk on the treadmill, the StairMaster will be a better cardio workout. Climbing stairs is a fantastic aerobic workout and is very challenging for your heart and lungs.

If you’re going to run, the treadmill takes the cake in terms of cardio in the stair climber vs treadmill match.

You can go faster on the treadmill, and the focus of the workout is cardio, whereas the StairMaster workout provides a hybrid of resistance and cardio.

StairMaster vs Treadmill for Strength and Building Muscle

Stair climbing predominantly works the quads, hamstrings, and calves, and glutes. You’ll build a lot of strength in the posterior chain muscles because you’re only ascending the stairs.

For this reason, the StairMaster is a particularly great workout for your glutes and calves. 

If you don’t hold onto the handrails, you can also get an excellent core workout and upper body workout akin to running. However, if you grip the handrails the whole time, you’ll negate the use of your upper body.

Walking and running work all the muscles in the lower body, as well as the core and arms, provided you don’t hold onto the handrails. Increasing the incline targets the calves, glutes, and hamstrings more.

A person walking on a stair machine.

StairMaster vs Treadmill Calories Burned

The number of calories you burn in any workout depends not only on the type of exercise you’re doing—StairMasterl vs treadmill (or otherwise)—but also on your body weight and composition and the duration and intensity of your workout. 

Therefore, it’s difficult to compare the calories burned on a StairMaster vs treadmill.

Harvard Health Publishing has a report that shows the approximate number of calories burned doing 30 minutes of various common types of exercise for different body weights.

While their numbers are usually pretty close to other calculations, the StairMaster energy expenditure seems unduly low. 

The site reports that 30 minutes of “general stair stepper machine use” burns 180 calories for a 125-pound person, 216 calories for a 155-pound person, and 252 calories for a 185-pound person.

In comparison, the data show that running for 30 minutes at 5mph (12 min/mile pace) burns 240 calories for a 125-pound person, 288 calories for a 155-pound person, and 336 calories for a 185-pound person, while running for 30 minutes at 6mph (10 min/mile pace) burns 295 calories for a 125-pound person, 360 calories for a 155-pound person, and 420 calories for a 185-pound person. 

Finally, running at a vigorous 10mph (6 min/mile pace) burns 453 calories for a 125-pound person, 562 calories for a 155-pound person, and 671 calories for a 185-pound person.

A person running on a treadmill.

Therefore, according to these values, running on the treadmill burns more calories than a StairMaster workout, depending on the intensity of your stair stepper workout. 

“General use” stair stepping speaks to moderate intensity at best, so it’s certainly possible to increase your caloric expenditures above these estimates.

Also of note, 30 minutes of walking at a moderate pace of 3.5 miles per hour (17 minutes per mile) burns fewer calories than the stair stepper (107 calories for a 125-pound person walking versus 180 on a stair stepper, 133 calories for a 155-pound person walking versus 216 on a stair stepper, and 159 calories for a 185-pound person versus 252 on a stair stepper).

The best way to estimate your energy expenditure on either exercise machine is to use a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker and then use the formula for Metabolic Equivalents (METs).

The Compendium of Physical Activities reports that using the StairMaster or other stair climbing exercise machines is the equivalent of 9 METS while running up stairs is 15 METS.

This is much higher than the energy expenditure implicated by the Harvard Health numbers, but they align fairly closely to research studies looking at the metabolic cost of climbing stairs.

People walking on treadmills.

Using METs values, you can calculate the number of calories burned on the stair climbing machine based on your body weight and duration of your workout using the equation to determine energy expenditure:

Calories Burned Per Minute = METs x 3.5 x (your body weight in kilograms) / 200 

For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg) and do the stair climber machine at the gym: 

9 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 11.8 calories per minute.

Then, if you do a 30-minute workout, you multiply the number of calories burned per minute by 30 minutes = 11.8 x 30 = 354 calories. 

Most people using the StairMaster won’t really be “running” up the stairs, but in case you are wanting to compare calories burned running stairs vs treadmill, we can quickly calculate calories burned running stairs (which is a whopping 15 METS!) for the same 165-pound person:

For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg) and do the stair climber machine at the gym: 

15 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 19.7 calories per minute.

Then, if you do a 30-minute workout, you multiply the number of calories burned per minute by 30 minutes = 19.7 x 30 = 591 calories. 

The METS for treadmill workouts depend on the pace you are running or walking, as seen in the table below:

METSPace (mph)Pace (km/hr)
6.04 mph (15 min/mile) 6.4
8.35 mph (12 min/mile) 8.0
9.05.2 mph (11.5 min/mile) 8.4
9.86 mph (10 min/mile) 9.7
10.56.7 mph (9 min/mile) 10.8
11.07 mph (8.5 min/mile) 11.3
11.57.5 mph (8 min/mile) 12.1
11.88 mph (7.5 min/mile)12.9
12.38.6 mph (7 min/mile) 13.8
12.89 mph (6.5 min/mile) 14.5
14.510 mph (6 min/mile) 16.1
16.011 mph (5.5 min/mile) 17.7
19.012 mph (5 min/mile) 19.3
19.813 mph (4.6 min/mile)20.9

According to this data, the StairMaster burns more calories than the treadmill if you’re running slower than 5.2 mph (11.5 minutes per mile), which is equivalent to 8.4 kpm, while the treadmill burns more calories than the StairMaster when you’re running faster than this.

A person on a stairmachine.

StairMaster vs Treadmill for Weight Loss 

Any form of exercise has the potential to help you reduce body fat and lose weight. The more calories you burn, the greater the caloric deficit you’ll generate, which then leads to greater weight loss.

Therefore, burning calories on a stair stepper machine or treadmill can help you lose weight.

When considering the StairMaster vs treadmill for weight loss, the winner mostly comes down to which workout you will do longer or more vigorously to burn more calories. 

For example, if you can push your body through hard or long runs on a treadmill but can only do moderate-intensity exercise or short stints on a stair stepper exercise machine, the treadmill will probably result in more weight loss over time.

However, research shows that HIIT workouts are the most effective way to lose body fat because they increase your metabolic rate even after your workout is over, with some studies noting that your metabolism stays revved up for 14 hours after your workout.

With this in mind, a HIIT workout on a treadmill or StairMaster will be better for fat-burning than a steady-state workout at a lower intensity.

Finally, increasing your lean body mass is also an effective way to lose body fat because muscle tissue is more metabolically-active than fat tissue, and the StairMaster is a great way to build muscle. 

Therefore, over time, the StairMaster might be best for body composition changes.

Someone running on a treadmill.

StairMaster vs Treadmill: Injury Risk

One of the best things about stair stepper workouts is that they are high-intensity but low-impact. If you suffer from joint pain, the stair stepper machine can be a better choice compared to running.

However, if you’re brand new to the StairMaster, it’s important to note that it takes some coordination and isn’t as natural as running on a treadmill, so you can potentially fall off. 

Also, if you don’t usually climb a ton of stairs, you might be very sore after your first several stair stepper workouts.

Stairmaster vs Treadmill: Which One Gives a Better Workout?

There isn’t really a simple answer to whether the treadmill or StairMaster is a better workout.

Here are the factors to consider:

  • How intense can you do each? The higher the intensity, the better the workout.
  • What is your goal? If you solely want a cardio workout, the treadmill is good, but if you want to build strength and get a cardio workout, the StairMaster is better.
  • How are you using the treadmill? Walking or running? Incline or flat? If you’re walking or jogging slowly, the StairMaster is a better workout, but if you’re running and/or using incline, the treadmill is usually a better workout.
  • Which do you prefer? Enjoyment is important, too!

If you like high-intensity workouts in general, check out our very own HIIT workouts.

A gym full of cardio machines.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

1 thought on “Stairmaster Vs Treadmill: Which Gives The Better Workout?”

  1. Very good info. I am 73 years old with arthritis in my knees. I used to run. Still walk some but with pain. I now do stationary bike, rowing machine, some eliptical and have did six ten minute sessions on the new stairmaster at my gym at 6.4 METS. No treadmill it is much too painful. Sometimes I do a few weights. The stairmaster works me. The bike and rowing machine only if I try to do more than 10 miles in a half hour and 4-5 thousand meters in a half hour on the rowing machine. I used to do an hour on the eliptical but not anymore. Usually only 15 minutes at tolerance of 7 instead of the 20 before. The stairmaster info is very helpful. Just acquired the manual today. Thank You


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